For Gingrich, an Easy Victory and Uneasy Future
By Lois Romano
MARIETTA, Ga., Nov. 4 (Wednesday) If there was any hand-wringing here Tuesday night, amid the dozens of waving "Speaker Newt" signs at the noisy campaign celebration, it was not over whether this particular congressman would win his 11th term to the House.
Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich easily sailed to reelection in his suburban Atlanta district. The real issue for Gingrich on election night was whether the Republican Party would increase its hold on the House, as Gingrich approaches the most significant period of his political career. By early this morning, it appeared as though the Republicans would not come close to their earlier predictions of substantial gains.
In the next two years, Gingrich faces the potentially conflicting goals of securing his legacy as the first Republican speaker in 40 years while positioning himself to run for president. Against this backdrop, Gingrich must oversee a presidential impeachment process that has been met with consistent disapproval from the public.
As he addressed his supporters at the Cobb Galleria Centre, hours before the final House tally was in, Gingrich assured the packed ballroom that "we will gain seats as the evening goes on. ... We have have gained 51 House seats since Bill Clinton was elected."
"This will be the first time in 70 years that Republicans kept control of the House for a third time," Gingrich said to prolonged cheers.
After a nearby rally Monday, Gingrich dismissed the suggestion that minimal GOP gains would be tantamount to a Democratic victory, since the party not in the White House historically makes substantial inroads during the midterm elections.
"That's how the [Democrats] will spin it, but the fact is . . . even if we pick up six seats, that means Bill Clinton lost 57 seats since he was elected president," Gingrich said.
Gingrich had nominal opposition in his own race from Marietta attorney Gary Pelphrey, which allowed the speaker to visit 205 congressional districts, raising more than $75 million for other candidates. National surveys show that Gingrich's approval ratings how voters generally view a politician are as high as they have ever been, suggesting he has made some headway in his effort to transform himself from partisan bomb-thrower to statesman.
Some political analysts argue that he may already be a lame duck because of the four-term limit he imposed on the leadership when he assumed power in 1995 and because of his presidential aspirations. Conservative House insurgents, dissatisfied with Gingrich's budget compromise, have been privately making noises about challenging the leadership. Having staved off a coup attempt in 1997, any serious insurgency could damage Gingrich's credibility at a time when he needs to appear strong.
"It is highly likely that more and more members will start developing individual bases of loyalty . . . and competing power centers, which could make it hard for him to do his job," said Michael Malbin, director of political and legislative studies of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany.
Gingrich has always tried to stay focused on his own career game plan from a self-styled revolutionary in the '80s to a mainstream player in the '90s. The former history teacher will be leaving the speakership his life-long dream as one of the youngest former speakers in recent history, which argues in favor of him pursuing his presidential ambitions. When asked if he was running for president after he voted at a church near his home Tuesday morning, Gingrich said, "Not in a way that I'd announce here."
Political observers say that a presidential run could be a challenge for Gingrich because, as speaker, he has necessarily been at odds in the House with some of the very Republican factions he would need to build a winning coalition.
Ronald Peters, the director of the Carl Albert Congressional Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma, believes Gingrich would be better off letting 2000 pass because if he falls flat, he might not recover politically. "His best strategy would be to sit tight for four more years and try to sustain a solid majority through redistricting [following the 2000 census]. If he sustains a majority through 2002, that would likely secure a Republican majority for many years. That would be his legacy."
In addition, the public's clear lack of interest in an impeachment inquiry arising from President Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky will be no small headache for Gingrich, who must balance a clear message from the public against congressional Republicans intent on pursuing the issue to inflict political damage on the Democrats.
"If the public continues to oppose impeachment while the core of the Republican Party supports it, he will be in a very tough position," said Gary Jacobson, professor of political science at University of California at San Diego and a congressional expert. "There is just no way he cannot be in the center of this. ... If Republicans go all out for impeachment, this is not a winner for him."
Gingrich has avoided the issue on the campaign trail, and during several television interviews Tuesday night he brushed off questions about the impeachment inquiry and the GOP's 11th-hour ad campaign raising questions about Clinton's character. In one interview, he accused the media of being "fixated" on the scandal. By midnight, he had opted to cancel his remaining early morning network interviews because, according to a spokesman, he was getting the same questions repeatedly.
"In every speech, I never mentioned those negative things," Gingrich told reporters earlier Tuesday. "You guys in the media lead a rich fantasy life. There is no intrigue other than the news media."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company